23 January 2016
On Tuesday, the House of Commons will discuss the Child Poverty Act. The Government wants to abandon current targets and focus instead on what GCSE results a child gets or whether they have a parent in work. I agree that these things are important, but I know from personal experience that money matters when we’re talking about child poverty.
Working and raising children can be a difficult balancing act – sometimes just getting us all out the door on time without forgetting a coat, a school book or my keys feels like a small miracle. Being a single mother of three boys (4, 11 and 15 years old) definitely has its challenges, but this shouldn’t include making sure my children have enough food to eat. Sadly, despite being a working mum, I have experienced just that.
I’m a careful budgeter and a savvy shopper but even now an unexpected bill, a lost school blazer or news of a school trip can send my mind – and my weekly budget – into a frenzy.
It all started when I was on maternity leave expecting my third child. The growing costs of raising a family and trying to juggle the bills, combined with the fact my in-work benefits were being paid erratically, left me in debt and facing eviction.
The daily routine can seem impossible when you’re worrying about how to pay the bills and desperately trying to make your wages last just a few days longer. Before I realised it, I was in a situation where I couldn’t afford to give my son his lunch money so, too ashamed to send him to school without it, he stayed at home with me instead. I tried to buy enough food for my baby and the older children, but with calls from debtors, I was torn between paying my heating bills and buying food for my family. I felt too embarrassed to ask for help.
“I should have been able to afford it, as a working mum, but I couldn’t afford to put food on the table for my children.”
My son had always had excellent attendance at school, so the school soon realised something was wrong. I had a visit from the attendance officer and, reluctantly, I explained everything. Looking back now, I’m glad I opened up. With their help I was put in touch with the Tower Hamlets Foodbank, which is part of the charity First Love Foundation, who gave me more food than I had seen in weeks. I cried with joy when I learned it was all ours and that I’d be supported over the next few weeks whilst they helped me tackle the crisis I found myself in.
First Love Foundation helped me get housing and benefits advice and with this support I was able to arrange repayment schedules, have the eviction stopped and claim back the money in unpaid wages and in-work benefits that had wrongly been taken from me. It took a while, but with the Foundation’s ongoing advice and support, I finally got myself back on my feet.
I was lucky that I received their help, but I know that many other families don’t have the support I had at that crucial time. Too many parents have to choose between food and fuel. Too many children are going to bed cold and hungry. That’s why speaking out against these planned changes is so important. The Government needs to keep reporting on the real number of children living in poverty – including those in working families – so that getting rid of child poverty remains a priority.